Senate reorganizes committees to respond to 9/11 commission complaints
WASHINGTON – Senators rejected the Sept. 11 commission’s recommendation for congressional oversight and adopted their own plan Saturday as they prepared for final negotiations with the House on reorganizing the spy agencies Congress supervises.
On a 79-6 vote, the Senate created a new Homeland Security Committee, made a new subcommittee under the existing Appropriations Committee and strengthened the Intelligence Committee.
Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate’s deputy leaders, said the changes will improve an oversight system that the Sept. 11 commission called dysfunctional.
McConnell said the changes “will enable Congress to better monitor and support the executive agencies tasked with keeping America safe.”
“Our homelands and hometowns will be safer and better prepared to respond to terrorist threats,” added Reid.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who wanted the Senate to follow the plan of the commission that studied the 2001 attacks and recommended remedies for what went wrong, said the changes were useless.
“We’ll have a status quo Intelligence Committee without combined authorization and appropriations power,” McCain said Friday. “We’ll have a committee that handles only a tiny fraction of Homeland Security issues. And we’ll be right back where we started.”
Reid and McConnell said they told the Sept. 11 commission they wouldn’t be able to follow its recommendations to the letter. “They understood that we can’t wave a magic wand and do everything they wanted,” Reid said Saturday.
The 9/11 commission wanted Congress to consolidate financial appropriations and authorization powers in the House and Senate’s intelligence committees or to create a special joint committee to oversee the nation’s 15 intelligence agencies. Such a system would reduce the number of Capitol Hill stops that intelligence officials would have to make in reporting to lawmakers. Additionally, the commission figured, lawmakers overseeing the agencies could be more focused on their intelligence work.
The GOP-controlled House refused to consider any changes, and the Republican-controlled Senate decided its members would not even consider the commission’s two restructuring ideas.
They agreed to a plan that would eliminate term limits on the Intelligence Committee and strengthen its powers; rename the Government Affairs Committee the Homeland Security Committee and give it additional oversight; and create a new intelligence subcommittee under the Appropriations Committee.
Senators on other committees protected their turf by stripping out or ensuring that agencies such as the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Agency and the Coast Guard would not be under the new Homeland Security Committee. That committee would share with others issues such as immigration and customs.
Still, McConnell said, the Homeland Security Committee “will have jurisdiction over all of the policy making decisions of the Homeland Security Department.”
House and Senate negotiators will meet soon to come up with a compromise version of a new national intelligence director and a national counterterrorism center as recommended by the Sept. 11 commission.
Both chambers want to establish the intelligence director position and the counterterror center, but the House included new anti-terrorism, deportation, border security and identity theft powers to the bill that the Senate has rejected.